(Rhus coriaria L.) genus Rhus
Sumac is any one of approximately 250 species of flowering plants in the genus Rhus and related genera, in the family Anacardiaceae (cashew family). Sumacs grow in subtropical and temperate regions throughout the world, especially in Africa and North America.
Sumac comes from the berries of a wild bush that grows wild in all Mediterranean areas, especially in Sicily and Southern Italy, and parts of the Middle East, notably Iran.
Several species of the genus Rhus grow around the Mediterranean Sea; of these, only Rhus coriaria yields sumac spice. Rhus coriaria grows wild in Sicily, Western Asia and parts of Arabia and Central Asia.
Rhus coriaria, commonly called Elm-Leaved Sumach or Tanner’s Sumach is a deciduous shrub to small tree in the Anacardiaceae or Cashew family, native to southern Europe. The dried fruits are used as a spice, particularly in combination with other spices in the mixture called Za’atar; the berries are ground with a mortar and pestle with oregano, salt, toasted sesame seeds and thyme. The spice can be added to meats or brushed onto pita breads.
The word sumac traces its etymology from Old French sumac (13th century), from Medieval Latin sumach. In the Aramaic language, sumaqa both designates the colour dark red and the sumac berries, while Modern Hebrew sumak means the spice exclusively. The name was transported to European languages via Arabic as-summaq sumac. The species name coriarius refers to the usage of the plant for tanning (Latin corium leather).
The German name Essigbaum vinegar tree (mostly used for Rh. typhina, staghorn sumac, an ornamental common in Europe) originally referred to Rh. coriaria and is motivated by the sour taste of the berries. A similar idea stands behind Dutch zuurkruid sour condiment.
Sumacs are shrubs and small trees that can reach a height of 1–10 metres. The leaves are spirally arranged; they are usually pinnately compound, though some species have trifoliate or simple leaves. The flowers are in dense panicles or spikes 5–30 centimetres long, each flower very small, greenish, creamy white or red, with five petals. The fruits form dense clusters of reddish drupes called sumac bobs. The dried drupes of some species are ground to produce a tangy purple spice.
It has light gray or reddish stems which exude a resin when cut. Young branches are hairy. The leaves are hairy on the underside. In autumn the leaves turn to a bright red. White flowers are followed by conical clusters of fruit, each enclosed in a reddish brown hairy covering.
Easily propagated by seed, sumac grows best in poor soils. In Sicily, where it is widely cultivated and grows wild in the mountains, its quality is found to increase proportionately the higher it is sited. Also (spread by birds and other animals through their droppings), and by new shoots from rhizomes, forming large clonal colonies.
Several related plants are more or less common ornamentals both in Europe and in Northern America. It is generally believed that members of genus Rhus are only mildly toxic or even mostly harmless, for example the ornamental tree staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina). Nevertheless, it should be borne in mind that the ornamental varieties are not identical to the variety yielding the spice sumac, and that ingestion of those ornamentals may have adverse effects.
Danger: Japanese Laquer Tree, Toxicodendron vernicifluum (urushi [ウルシ]), belongs to the group of poisonous sumacs. Allergenic: The fruits of poison ivy (T. radicans) are not to be touched. The closely related genus Toxicodendron contains a group of trees distributed over the New World and the Pacific Rim. As can be inferred from the genus name poisonous tree, these species are highly toxic. They have formerly been listed under genus Rhus and are often referred to as sumac in common speech: Toxicodendron radicans (Poison Ivy), Toxicodendron diversilobum (Poison Oak), Toxicodendron vernix (Poison Sumac). All those contain urushiols (3-alkyl pyrocatechol derivatives with long side chains) that are extremely powerful allergenes: If applied to the intact skin they cause painful dermatitis in sensitive people. Sensitivity is acquired on previous contact to the urushiols, without any symptoms. The toxin’s are effective in sub-μg amounts. Lethal poisonings have been reported, particularly on ingestion or inhalation, which allows the urushiols to attack the mucous membranes of mouth, nose and intestines. Note that the fruits of Toxicodendron species are white to pale ochre, not red.
Allergenes of urushiol type (also alkyl resorcines) are commonly found in the Anacardiaceae family, e. g., in cashew shell oil or (in traces) unripe mangoes.
Flavour and Aroma
Tart and sour, with slightly astringent overtones. Slightly aromatic.
Health Benefits of Sumac and more
The astringent–acidic flavour of sumac spice mostly goes back to two different types of constituents: Tannines (gallotannines, together 4%) and organic acids (malic, citric, and tatric acid plus smaller amounts of succinic, maleic, fumaric and ascorbic acid). Tannines are found in all parts of the plant, with particularly high concentrations in bark and root. These plant parts were, thus, used for tanning leather since antiquity; moreover, they are part of anti-diarrhoeic concoctions in folk medicine.
The berries have diuretic properties, and are used in bowel complaints and for reducing fever. In the Middle East, a sour drink is made from them to relieve stomach upsets. Native Americans and Appalachian settlers used sumac for a number of medicinal purposes, including fevers, colds, and skin diseases. The bark was used for basket weaving, and the leaves, seeds, roots and berries for making different coloured dyes for cloth. Dyes of various colours, red, yellow, black, and brown, can be made from different parts of the plant.
Furthermore, the fruits contain traces of a volatile oil (0.02%) made up of aldehydes (2E-decenal, nonanal, 2E,4E- decadienal) and terpenoids (β-caryophyllene, α-pinene, α-terpineol, carvacrol and the diterpene hydrocarbon cembrene).
Oil extracted from the seeds can be used to make candles.
Buying and Storage
The berries are dried and crushed to form a coarse purple-red powder. The whole fruit appears in dense clusters. Individual berries are small, round, 10 mm in diameter, russet coloured and covered with hairs.
Dried fruits, usually sold ground (purple–reddish powder, often mixed with salt).
The berries can be dried, ground and sprinkled into the cooking, or macerated in hot water and mashed to release their juice, the resulting liquid being used as one might use lemon juice. Ground sumac keeps well if kept away from light and air.
In Europe, only Rhus coriaria is commercially available. In North America, however, two indigenous species (Rhus glabra and Rhus aromatica) have some small market share; their dried fruits have been used by North American Indians to prepare traditional sour beverages, but are rarely used today. Sumac species from the Old and the New World have very similar flavour.
Ideas with Cooking using Sumac
The juice extracted from sumac is popular in salad dressings and marinades and the powdered form is used in stews and vegetable and chicken casseroles.
Sumac is a very popular condiment in Turkey and Iran, where the ground fruits are liberally sprinkled over rice. Mixed with freshly cut onions, it is frequently eaten as an appetizer. The well-known Turkish fast food specialty döner kebap is sometimes flavoured with sumac powder.
Another use of sumac is recorded from Lebanon, Syria and Egypt: The fruits are cooked with water to a thick, very sour essence, which is, then, added to meat and vegetable dishes; this method was also common as early as in Roman times and finds a close parallel in the usage of tamarind in contemporary Indian and Indonesian cuisines.
Used in Arabic cooking, as a substitute to lemon for sourness and astringency. Lemon zest with a little salt makes a reasonable stand-in for sumac.
A mixture of yoghurt and sumac is often served with kebabs.